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Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s nearly a decade since the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was first introduced in the UK to help protect against the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer. But until now, it has only been routinely offered to girls.

Today, the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended that adolescent boys should now also receive the vaccine.

When and how this will happen is now down to the Government. But the recommendation comes from years of mounting evidence around likely health benefits and overall cost effectiveness.

HPV and cancer

HPV is a big family of viruses. There are more than 100 different types and some are more dangerous than others. While some low-risk types cause growths like warts or verrucas, there are thirteen high-risk types that are linked to cancer.

HPV is very common, with 8 in 10 people infected at some point in their life. Usually our bodies clear the infection without it causing any problems. But in some cases a lasting infection can lead to cancer.

This is because the virus damages the infected cells’ DNA and causes them to start dividing out of control, setting them on the road to cancer.

Thanks to the vaccination programme, many people know that HPV causes cervical cancer – in fact it’s linked to all cases of the disease in the UK. But HPV is linked to other cancers too – including anal, penis and some types of mouth and throat cancer.

Protecting against HPV can prevent 7 types of cancer

Together these add up to more than 8,000 cancer cases each year in the UK.

Why wasn’t the HPV vaccine always available for boys?

The HPV vaccine protects against 4 types of HPV. Two are linked to cancer: HPV 16 and 18, which together cause around 7 in 10 cervical cancer cases in the UK. The vaccine also protects against HPV 6 and 11, which cause most genital warts.

The vaccine has been available to girls in the UK since 2008. It was initially only recommended for girls as the strongest evidence of health benefits and cost effectiveness was for cervical cancer and genital warts.

Since the vaccine was introduced, we’re starting to see HPV infections in people who have been vaccinated falling. This suggests the vaccine is preventing HPV infection and, in the future, this should prevent cervical cancers.

But HPV is linked to cancers in men as well as women.

Men who have sex with women will get some protection from the current vaccination programme if their partner is vaccinated. The same can’t be said for adult men who have sex with men .

In 2015, the JCVI, which advises UK health departments on vaccines, recommended extending vaccination to adult men who have sex with men. This group of men are at a higher risk of anal cancer. Up to the age of 45, these men can request HPV vaccination at sexual health clinics.

But up until today, the programme hadn’t been recommended for boys, as the JCVI weren’t convinced it would be cost-effective.

Today’s decision brings the UK in line with other countries including the US and Australia, which already offer the vaccination to boys.

Who will be offered the vaccine?

The JCVI has recommended the vaccine for boys aged 11-13, similar to the vaccination programme for girls. HPV vaccination is most effective in people who haven’t ever had an HPV infection. And as HPV is mostly transmitted through close sexual contact, vaccination is offered at a young age when people are unlikely to have had any sexual experiences.

Men above the vaccination age who don’t have sex with men won’t be offered the vaccine. But it’s important to remember that most people clear HPV infections without them causing any symptoms or problems. And for most cancers linked to HPV there are also other ways to reduce your risk through things like not smoking or drinking less alcohol.

What happens now?

The recommendation for a gender neutral vaccination programme for adolescents has been years in the making. The next step is for the Government to formally accept the recommendation and extend the programme to boys.

Until it does, we won’t know the details of when and how the programme will be rolled out. Once they have accepted the recommendation, the Government must publish a plan and timetable for the roll-out.

This will need to be accompanied by more details on the programme itself. When the vaccine was first offered to girls in the UK, a ‘catch-up’ programme was introduced for girls up to the age of 18, and we want the Government to do the same for boys.

Finally, the programme will do nothing if people aren’t aware it’s happening. We want to see a national awareness campaign to clearly communicate about the vaccine and its potential benefits, as well as new information for parents and boys.

By offering the vaccine to everyone aged 11-13, the number of cases of HPV, along with the cancers they cause, could be dramatically reduced in the future.

Corrie Drumm is a policy advisor and Fiona Osgun is a health information manager at Cancer Research UK.

Update 19/07/2018: The Scottish and Welsh Governments have announced that they will follow the recommendation and offer the HPV vaccine to boys.

Update 24/07/2018: The Department of Health and Social Care have accepted the recommendation to extend the HPV vaccination programme to boys in England.

Update 08/04/2019: The Department of Health has announced it will offer the HPV vaccine to boys aged 12-13 in Northern Ireland.

Comments

Marc Maury August 10, 2018

Very good idea

Shirley Morse August 10, 2018

If it really has been proved successful in girls then it seems sensible that boys should be offered it.

Troy August 10, 2018

JCVI is hugely biased (under pressure from government) towards saving money and any logic can be given to cost cut. Remember, there is no shortage of money bribing DUP or bombing and sending unnecessary troops to other countries or – but there is always shortage of money providing healthcare and vaccine to our young children – remember Meningitis B as well ! There is no excuse of not giving boys (and older men) HPV vaccine! It costs £450 if you are taking privately (only Boots offer).

John August 9, 2018

I lost my wife to anal cancer three years ago but her oncologist couldn’t confirm whether or not it was HPV related. Not only did she suffer dreadful physical symptoms but also emotional distress from those symptoms and embarrassment that some might assume she had been indulging in risky sexual activities. I had the pain of watching her suffering and decline and the anxiety that perhaps I had passed the virus to her. I can understand the fear of possible adverse consequences from the vaccine but please balance that against the risk of the ghastly disease itself.

Andy H August 9, 2018

I was diagnosed with HPV related throat cancer 2 years ago and still going for 3 month scans, I had no idea about this virus as everybody talks about girls being vaccinated at an early age. Its frightening that boys were never vaccinated the same as girls considering the publicity its had over the years, Michael Douglas the actor springs to mind. I was diagnosed at the age of 54 and with 2 very young children the pressures on us as a family were immense. If having boys vaccinated early on prevents what we went through, as well as the stigma attached to cancer then its a great thing and should start as soon as possible.

Ian August 9, 2018

I think that more transparent research needs to be carried out with this vaccine. My step-daughter was guilt tripped in to having the HPV jab by a well meaning teacher. She is now one of many who suffers life changing complications that manifested themselves after she was vaccinated. I note that there are others on this chain who have posted links, please take the time to look at them.

More has to be done to safeguard those predisposed to suffering the side effects.

Louise cooper August 8, 2018

Think it’s great that the vaccine will be offered to boys

Lesleyanne August 7, 2018

Hi I think this is brilliant. I see it is only boys between 11 and 13 that can receive the vaccination. My son is 14, will I be able to take him to my GP to have it

Karen August 7, 2018

I have two boys (aged 14&15). Will they be offered this?

Donna August 7, 2018

This is great news that Boys are being vaccinated. I have a 13, 15 & 18 yr old boys so hope these will be available to them

Elaine Taylor August 6, 2018

This is very good. I was just wondering about boys slightly older, my grandson is just 15. Will he miss out. I’ve also 2 others 17 and 21.

Debbie POWELL August 5, 2018

Not a moment too soon, it is not only cost saving but life saving. It just makes perfect sense, with the HPV prevention is better than cure!

Ujj August 4, 2018

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAzcMHaBvLs

This is not intended to scare at all. These are information available freely on the net.

Geoff Pyke August 3, 2018

So what if you have like myself and Jack Marsh who have had Cancer related to HPV mine was 16 in my tonsils can it reoccur as a result of further infection?

Felicity Baker August 3, 2018

Surprised it hadn’t been done earlier. Vaccinate don’t procrastinate !

JACK MARSH August 3, 2018

I fully support this move, I have just recovered from throat cancer which was HPV related, as a non smoker I was unaware that I could get throat cancer, I donate to cancer research through direct debit but strongly feel that government should fund this also.

Melanie Shingler August 2, 2018

I hope they do the catch up programme soon as I have a son who has just turned 14 therefore he will be outside the age bracket, I back this vaccine & would want my son to have this like his sister has.

Lisa August 2, 2018

I think this is an excellent thing. I have one 16yr old boys and one 20yr old boy, I wish I could pay for them both to have the vacation

Kate rayner August 2, 2018

This is brilliant news.im under the cancer family history clinic.and are a moderate risk for breast/overium cancer.all the female cousins in my family including myself can have or have yearly mammograms due to the risk.it often worried me for the boys as some of the male cancers have been connected too.i do wonder why these are only availiable to young teenagers though and us who are already at a risk.

Lynda August 2, 2018

It’s unfair just to focus on children. Adults need to be offered this or similar